Fiction Issue - First Place: Drone

An atmospheric examination of the mundane

Since he’d fallen off the roof a week ago, Leo told everyone he could see through walls; that he’d woken up with X-ray vision. Closed doors, curtains, certain foods, clothes of people on TV, he saw through it all. Very few of the people on television, he claimed, wore underpants. Will listened to his brother talk about what he could see through in the kitchen. He picked up an orange from the fruit bowl. “You want?” Will asked. Leo shook his head. Will started to peel the fruit, digging his thumbnail into the oily skin. He stopped and held it up. “Hey, Wonder Woman — how many seeds?”

“Superman,” Leo said. “Not Wonder Woman.” He scowled and concentrated. “Twenty-seven.”

“Superman could fly,” Will said. “Let’s hit it.” Will helped his older brother with his coat, guiding his chubby arms through the sleeves. Leo looked forward to the cold outside, how it would make his snot freeze, how it would be sharp and poke the insides of his nose. Will thought about a girl, the same girl he’d been thinking about since she dumped him.

“We go to the diner,” Leo said. “Then a movie.”

Will said no, that they’d go some other time. “We’re going to see Todd. You remember Todd.” Leo nodded. Will wrote a note to their mother and taped it to the fridge. Their father, before he died, had always said, “Leave your keys in the same place every time. That way, you never lose them.” Will fished his keys out of the bowl next to the front door and thought that was the most boring advice he’d ever heard. His car, an old bruised and rusted hatchback, choked in the cold, protested, and shook to life.

Leo pointed to a house, a two-story colonial with dormers like cat ears. It was a nice neighborhood — hedges, green grass, and yard crews moving leaves back and forth. Will didn’t know anybody that lived there.

“There’s bees there,” Leo said.

“Sure thing, buddy,” Will said without looking away from the road. He turned the radio up. They listened to rock songs and commercials until they pulled into the Burger Bar parking lot.

“Todd,” Leo said, pointing through the building’s stucco wall.

“You want a hamburger, big man?” Will crushed his cigarette under his shoe. Halfway through the parking lot they ran into Mrs. Selby. She’d taught at the high school with their father. They’d not seen her since the funeral two years ago.

“William,” she said with a curt nod. Her face softened, and she took Leo’s hand. “How are you? How is your mother?” Leo told her that the weather girl on channel three wore purple underpants. Will pushed him into the restaurant, sputtering apologies, and Mrs. Selby shook her head in what Will assumed was resigned disappointment. He knew that everyone thought the family had gone to hell since Dad died.

They opened the doors and the smell of old grease hit them. Will glanced to see if Charlene was working in her purple shirt and visor with matching nails. They’d been an on-and-off thing for almost six months. Three weeks and three days ago, she’d taken stock of him, a skinny community college kid, and decided she wasn’t impressed. Managers wore purple, she had reminded him. She said he’d never wear purple, not at the Burger Bar, not in life. But she wasn’t there, just bored teenagers joylessly making sandwiches.

“Way to pick the afternoon ‘the one that got away’ is getting her pap smear,” Todd said as they sat in the booth. His face was greasy, and it glistened like the skin on old pudding.

“You’re the one who said she was working today.” Will slid down the plastic seat in defeat and watched as Leo sat nervously and chewed his nails.

“Mistakes were made,” Todd said. He cleaned a smudge from his name tag. Last week, Charlene had promoted him to head of the bun toasting station.

“I heard that there’s something going down at the Elk tonight,” Will said. The Elk was a rundown motel on the old highway. After the new interstate was built, the Elk slouched into a comfortable decline; the only residents were old drunks and kids looking for a place to party away from their parents and the cops. When Will was in high school, parties at the Elk were stuff of legend. He’d never been.

“You going?” Todd asked. “You think she’s going?”

“I don’t know. I got a night class, Intro to Econ.”

“Isn’t this the second time you’ve taken that? What a goddamned family of geniuses you all turned out to be.”

“I want my hamburger,” Leo said. He thought of a hamburger with onions and bees, millions of them crawling over each other — how shiny their backs must be and the loud buzzing sounds.

“You know if she’s going?” Will asked. Todd shrugged and he let his long hair out of its slithery ponytail. It fell and draped over his shoulders. Will gritted his teeth. “Todd, man, help me out—”

“She might be, but c’mon, friend,” Todd said, grinning. “She don’t want anything to do with your ass. I’m telling you this so you can sleep tonight: Drop her. Cross her out of your mind, just X her out. She told me you’re dead to her.”

Will sat numbed, gut bottomed out. He lost track of his extremities and seemed to float over the booth, watching his brother pick his nose and Todd twirl his greasy hair. Todd changed the subject and started talking about his promotion (“You got to be on your toes, man. Burgers need buns — it’s like ying and yang”). Leo fidgeted. Will had forgotten Todd was only tolerable while blisteringly drunk. He handed Leo two bucks for a burger and mumbled a see you later in Todd’s direction.

Leo ate his hamburger in the car. He’d never been to this part of town, with all the smokestacks and wide empty roads. They drove up to a large apartment building, and Will got out, telling Leo to be good and that he’d be back. Leo counted all the doors to all the apartments.

“Thirty-two doors,” he said when Will came back.

“Cool, buddy.” He’d awakened Charlene’s roommate, who did nails at the mall. She told him the party would start around 11, in the Elk’s only room with a hot tub. She’d answered the door in tights and a baggy T-shirt. He turned to leave, and she told him not to go, to just stay home.

“Thirty-two doors,” Leo repeated. “I’m thirsty.”

“Well, let’s get you something to drink.” Will lit a cigarette and thought about his next move.

“Come on, Mom.” Will daubed cologne on his wrists and checked his teeth in the bathroom mirror. He’d put his mother on speakerphone and her voice bounced around his tiny bathroom. Leo snored from the next room, deep in his afternoon nap.

“I know it’s last minute, honey,” she said. “The church bus leaves at 6, and Dr. Carlisle thinks it would be good for me to get out. Ever since your father—”

“Alright, alright,” he said. “No need to bring out the big guns.” She rattled off emergency phone numbers for all of Leo’s doctors.

She said, “We’re going to SeaWorld to see Shamu.”

“Ma, I think Shamu’s dead.”

She paused. “You’ve always been so negative, William.” After saying goodbye, he turned off the phone and the only noise left was of his brother’s sleepy breathing.

“I got a job for you, big bro.” Leo’s eyes widened. His face broke out in a hopeful smile. They sat in the Elk’s parking lot in the idling hatchback. It was dark, and the place was empty of people. “We’re going to spend the night here,” Will said. “We’re going to get a room and camp out. I need to know if you can see through things like you say you can.” Will handed his brother a sack of candy bars. Leo laughed and hugged the bag to his chest. While his brother checked in, Leo picked out which one he’d eat first.

Room 15 had the hot tub, according to Charlene’s roommate. Will asked for Room 14 and the motel clerk shrugged and charged his credit card 40 bucks. Room 14 smelled stale and bleachy; a bed with a questionable blanket sat in the corner. A threadbare pullout sofa and lamp took up the opposite wall. Will took his tallboy from the paper bag and sat on the bed.

“Anything yet?” Will asked.

“Nobody yet,” Leo said. Leo ate half a candy bar in one bite. Smacking his lips, he fumbled to take off his sweater. Will smelled peanut butter and took a long drink from his beer.

“You remember what she looks like, don’t you.”

“Charlene’s pretty,” Leo said.

“Sure is.”

“Tall.” Will agreed. Leo said, “I remember that you like her and she’s nice when I order a hamburger.”

The room didn’t have a television. Will stared at the walls, hoping the beer would make him drunk soon. The sofa stank like old cigarette smoke and he had the realization that he was breathing in air full of shitty particles of pathetic old men long past, the kind of men who’d slept in motels off the highway since forever. He drained the tallboy and reached for another. An hour went by and the only noises were from occasional passing cars. Beer sloshed in his stomach, and he belched.

“C’mon, champ,” he said, resting his hand on Leo’s shoulder. “Change of plans.”

The sound of footsteps and excited voices came from outside. Horns honked and, as if cued, the party in Room 15 blossomed to life. Muffled laughter, the instantly recognizable skunk of weed, began to seep through the walls into their room. Will lit a cigarette to mask the smell. He opened the door and, outside on the walkway, heard the wet and bubbly sluck of a water bong. People came and went in the room, overspilling with bodies out into the night.

“Charlene likes purple,” Leo said and tore open another candy bar. He chewed with his mouth open. Will rushed and pressed his ear to the wall.

“Is she here?” Too many voices to pick hers out — he punched the sofa in frustration. Will crowded Leo, hovering inches from him, and waited for his brother to say something more.

“There’s a bunch of people, Will-o,” Leo said. Their father had called them “Leo and Will-o.” Will had always hated it. “It’s hard.”

“Come on,” he snapped. “You know what she looks like — big tits, black hair, and by God if she’s in there and you’re holding out on me—” Leo’s face stayed against the wall, but his shoulders started to shake and he bit his lip. Will pushed him away, straining to hear something.

“I should have known you were full of shit,” Will said. “So stupid.” He seemed to be talking to himself, and Leo felt like he was going to get in trouble. Will slammed the wall and left, pushing people out of his way. He turned to the open door of Room 15 and was face to face with Todd, holding a beer in one hand.

“Dude,” Todd said. “What did I tell you?” He stank sharply of old ketchup.

Leo peeked outside, confused. He had questions. He thought Will and Todd were friends, so why were they yelling? He had seen Will push past all the people and into Room 15 — so many people all over each other in a tiny room, Leo thought of the bees again — but Will disappeared and Leo heard the music stop and the people stop and the yelling start. A girl screamed and Leo ran and closed the door. When he felt afraid, like when he’d gotten up on the roof to bird watch and was too scared to climb back down the ladder, he closed his eyes and thought good things. He thought of his mother, how she was beautiful. She left all day for work, every day except Saturday and Sunday. He heard glass breaking, things falling over and more yelling. Dad had broad shoulders and could carry all the groceries in at once. Dad could tell a story that would teach you something you didn’t know you needed to know.

“Follow these rules,” he remembered his father saying. “Stop, drop and roll. Don’t look into the sun. Don’t make things that are simple, hard.” Leo closed the door and thought more things until Will came back in. His cheek and forehead were scraped up; his right eye was swelling shut. He flopped onto the sofa, burying his face in the cushions. Room 15 was quiet. The weight of all the silence pushed Will further into the couch, so far he thought he’d be forced through the floor.

Leo sat next to his brother. “Leo,” Will said, his face still hidden in the musty cushions. “Leo, tell me about it. Tell me what happened.”

Leo brightened. “I got on the roof and I know I’m not supposed to. I go up to watch the birds and then bam — on the ground and you were there asking if I was OK.”

“No,” Will said. “Tell me about Dad.”

Leo traced his name in the carpet with one finger. Big L and little e-o. “Dad died,” he said. His shoulders sagged.

“You were in the house when it happened. The only one.”

“I don’t remember it,” Leo said.

“You remember everything. You remembered how many days I was gone at band camp when I was 9 and how many cigarettes I stole from Dad my whole sophomore year.”

The music blared back to life in the next room and the place erupted in cheers. Somebody broke a few glass bottles against the wall. Will turned and faced his brother, his eye now swollen shut.

“Dad said he didn’t feel good and went to bed,” Leo said. He scratched his right ear. In the next room, Led Zeppelin sang about all of their love.

“Tell me what happened next, big brother.” Through the wall, Todd led a drunken sing-along with his voice ringing out above the others.

“The phone rang and I yelled for Dad to get it because I am not allowed to answer. The phone rang and rang and rang. They called again and I yelled for Dad to get it because I am not allowed to answer. They called again and that time I picked it up.”

“I wish it had gone down different, Leo,” Will said. “I really do.” The nausea in his belly started to ease. “And they’re all assholes,” Will said, nodding over to next door.

“Assholes,” said Leo.

“Nothing but assholes.”

Leo leaned in, his eyes wide, and pressed his finger to Will’s chest. “Yes,” Leo said and he grabbed Will, nearly crushing him with his weight. Leo’s smell surrounded him, of unwashed clothes and body odor. Leo squeezed him hard, and he said, “They’re all assholes, Will. I know it that they are.”

“I know,” Will said.

“Even Charlene, too.”

“Even Charlene.”

They cleaned up the room of cans and candy wrappers. Will was afraid of causing another scene, so they waited for the party to die. Leo slept with a pillow on his head. Will smoked all his cigarettes, watching his brother’s chest move up and down.

In the early morning, on the way back, Will saw smoke and a crew of workers in hardhats in front of a house. There was a cherry picker. He pulled over and stepped out, making sure to close the car door quietly so to not wake his sleeping brother. He walked across the lawn. The grass had a thin pearly frost. No man spoke, every one of them focused on the cherry picker and the two figures in it. They were beekeepers he realized, and they stood with small metal canisters that leaked a steady stream of smoke. One wielded a vacuum and sucked strays midflight. Where the attic wall should have been, there was a gaping hole. A beekeeper yelled to look out and a huge thing fell — at first, Will thought it was a body — and it landed with a wet thump. Many seconds passed before he realized it was the honeycomb. It looked like a sick organ from a monster, thick and oozing. Will craned his neck upward, shielding his eyes from the newly risen sun. Pink tufts of insulation fell like snow around him. A few bees, the ones still loose, flew stoned from the smoke in search of something to do. Will watched the slow cascade of honey as gallons of it slid down the house, covering everything in sticky gold, and he envied how it would muffle all the noises from outside. A drone landed on his hand, and he let it crawl the mountains of his knuckles.

Lucas Church is a technical writer and editor in Atlanta, and, in addition to Creative Loafing, his work has appeared in Hobart, the Carolina Quarterly, and dislocate. He writes because he’s not good at math. He also drinks too much coffee.